One of the most important national holidays in the United States is Thanksgiving Day. While there were many events that gave birth to the tradition, it is believed that it began in 1621. When the Mayflower left England in September 1620, it landed in Cape Cod where colonists began to settle. After the pilgrims' first harvest succeeded, the pilgrims and the Native Americans planned a feast. The Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared the feast that has come to be known as Thanksgiving dinner. While many Native American traditions were used to cook the meal, dessert was not a part of the initial feast. In 1817, New York became the first state to organize an annual Thanksgiving. But, it wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday. So the history of Thanksgiving dinner reaches back to the very beginnings of US history itself.
Thanksgiving may encompass a variety of different traditions but it’s more than just a kick-off to the Christmas season. As the busiest travel day of the year, it takes place each year on the fourth Thursday in November. From football to wishbones, there are unique traditions, decorations, and recipes that go along with Thanksgiving dinner. Whether you have Cornish game hens or oven-roasted turkey, there are many ways to celebrate this holiday!
Given the importance of Thanksgiving Day in the United States, it’s no surprise that many travel home for this holiday. Yet, there’s more to Thanksgiving than the well-known feast! For some, it can be a time to give back by volunteering at a food bank or homeless shelter. For those at home, spending time with family watching football or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is customary. The Turkey Trot is also a popular national event that can help to balance out Thanksgiving dinner eats! As the most popular race in America, this run started in Buffalo, New York in 1896 and is still going. But, don’t forget about one of the day’s most prominent traditions - the turkey pardon! Instead of being a part of the feast, a gifted turkey is pardoned by the President of the United States.
Wampanoag and Pilgrims: A deal and a meal
As these debates were happening among the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims, most of whom were still living on the cramped and creaking Mayflower, struggled to survive the winter. Half of them died of illness, cold, starvation or a combination of the three.
Throughout the season, the Wampanoag made their presence known but did not approach until February, when Samoset, a visiting Abenaki tribesman from Maine, approached Pilgrim leaders. He spoke English and carried a subtle message &mdash the Wampanoag were ready for peace or war with their new neighbors, and the Pilgrims needed to make their intentions clear.
Several weeks later, in late March, diplomatic relations between the two groups formally opened when Massasoit arrived in Plymouth, his face painted deep red, and flanked by about 60 intimidating warriors. With Tisquantum acting as a broker, the two groups worked out a kind of alliance through a series of visits, exchanges and the belief, at least on the part of the Wampanoag, that this small band of Pilgrims would stay just that: small.
&ldquoI don&rsquot think anyone at that point would have gone into an agreement with the Pilgrims if they knew how quickly they would multiply and start arriving,&rdquo Peters said.
Several months later, after receiving help and protection from the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims held the harvest feast that would form the crux of the Thanksgiving myth centuries later. Wampanoag members were not even invited, but they showed up. A group of about 100 men and Massasoit came not to celebrate but, according to Peters, mostly as a reminder that they controlled the land the Pilgrims were staying on and they vastly outnumbered their new European neighbors.
This is where the traditional telling of the Pilgrims and the Thanksgiving myth ends, with the two groups sitting down to dinner, celebrating their partnership and, for the Pilgrims, celebrating their successful colony and toasting to a future to come. But in the same way the real story stretches back before the arrival of the Pilgrims, it stretches forward.
In a little more than 50 years, European settlers would vastly outnumber the indigenous people, with growing settlements such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north and Rhode Island to the south.
By the 1670s Massasoit was dead and his son Wamsutta had died after he was imprisoned in Plymouth for negotiating a land sale to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. At the same time, colonists were pressing deeper and deeper across the region. Relations between the settlers and the Native people would deteriorate into the devastating King Philip's War, which ended with death, enslavement or displacement for the majority of the Native people living in southern New England.
The head of another of Massasoit&rsquos sons, Metacomet, better known as King Philip, was mounted on a pike outside Plymouth Colony as a warning, and the descendants of Massasoit, the Pilgrims&rsquo great &ldquoprotector and preserver,&rdquo were captured and sold into slavery in the West Indies.
There&rsquos a reason this part of the story did not make it into school history books and pageants or get remembered on Thanksgiving.
&ldquoIt&rsquos not a fun story,&rdquo Peters said, but its telling brings the focus away from the white Europeans, the Pilgrims, and shifts the balance back to the people who were harmed. Its telling builds the empathy that has been sorely lacking when it comes to Native American lives.
&ldquoNo one has acknowledged these atrocities happened,&rdquo Peters said, bringing up King Philip's War. &ldquoYet when we talk about it, there&rsquos zero empathy. The native life doesn&rsquot hold the same value.
&ldquoI think if we can get people to come to terms with the history and the way it happened, they can start to look at Native American lives on the same plane as European lives,&rdquo he said.
Who Were the Pilgrims Who Celebrated the First Thanksgiving?
An NEH-funded film revisits the Puritan Separatists who arrived aboard the Mayflower.
The Landing of the Pilgrims in 1620, a tapestry by Mabelle Linnea Holmes.
—Jamestown-Yorktown Educational Trust, Virginia / Bridgeman Images
In 1620, the Mayflower plowed across the Atlantic through headwinds and ocean currents at an incredibly slow two miles per hour. The overcrowded vessel’s crossing took more than two harrowing months. On the way, its 102 passengers witnessed an astonishing scene. During a fierce storm, an indentured servant named John Howland had come topside for fresh air when the ship rolled violently, casting him into the raging sea. He sank well beneath the waves. Such a fate almost certainly meant death by drowning. Yet, somehow, Howland had managed to grab a halyard on his way overboard, and desperately clung to it long enough for the crew to haul him back to safety.
The Mayflower on Her Arrival in Plymouth Harbor by William Formby Halsall, 1882.
—Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts
A nineteenth-century wood engraving depicts the Pilgrims signing a treaty with the Wampanoag in William Bradford’s house, 1621.
—Granger, NYC. All rights reserved.
Howland not only made it to America and worked off his indenture, but married a pretty young woman in the new colony named Elizabeth Tilley. They produced ten children, who begat 88 grandchildren, from whom an estimated two million Americans descended over the next four centuries. These included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Smith, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart, Chevy Chase, and both Presidents Bush.
Howland’s story suggests the seminal power of the handful of Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth, near Cape Cod, in the late fall of 1620. Every culture invents creation myths to answer the questions, Where did we come from, What got us here? Such myths mingle tall tales with, at times, a seasoning of fact.
For American culture, the story of the Pilgrims, including their “first Thanksgiving” feast with the local Native Americans, has become the ruling creation narrative, celebrated each November along with turkey, pumpkin pie, and football games. The Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock have eclipsed the earlier 1607 English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, as the place where America was born.
A new documentary, The Pilgrims, written and directed by Ric Burns and made with the help of a production grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, airs on PBS’s American Experience this November 24 and again on Thanksgiving night. Its retelling of the Pilgrims’ adventure and ordeal sheds new light on why their story became the creation myth that we, as a people, adopted. It draws on the unique, nearly lost history, Of Plymouth Plantation, written by William Bradford, the new colony’s governor for more than 30 years, whom the late actor Roger Rees portrays from a script derived from Bradford’s book.
Filmmaker Burns interviews several scholars, who show how the reality of the Pilgrim experience diverged in several ways from images embedded in the public imagination. For example, “the story of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving has Native Americans welcoming them with open arms,” says Kathleen Donegan, a Berkeley English professor interviewed in The Pilgrims whose book Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America was a source for the film. “It has been translated into this multicultural festival. But just as the Pilgrims don’t represent all English colonists, the Wampanoags, who feasted with them, don’t represent all Native Americans. The Pilgrims’ relations with the Narragansetts, or the Pequots, were completely different.”
Clearly, the story of a “multicultural festival” happening in newborn America resonates with the national ideology of inclusiveness. The Pilgrims did embody elements that took root in American culture, and this helps explain why, in retrospect, we call them our founders. The forces that shaped their lives also remain in place today. In that sense they are almost modern characters: Replace their wide-brimmed hats, doublets, and petticoats with baseball caps, T-shirts, and jeans, and they might easily blend into a homeschooling support group or a Tea Party rally.
The image of intergroup harmony and tolerance is naturally appealing to an immigrant country like America. Many imagine that the Pilgrims left the Old World behind to worship as they pleased and start a new country imbued with religious freedom, an ideal later codified in the First Amendment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“A big misconception is that they were for religious freedom and liberty,” says Donegan. “Actually, the Pilgrims saw the world as a wilderness, in which the one right way of practice toward God might cultivate a garden—and you needed a hedge around that garden to protect it from the wilderness. They were terrified of contamination. The Pilgrims were not for freedom of religion. Quite the opposite: They had very specific ideas about how to worship God, and were intolerant of deviations.” Historian Pauline Croft of the Royal Holloway University of London declares in the film, “One might say, if you wanted to be critical, they’re religious nutters who won’t settle for anything except the most literal reading of the Bible. They want to transform a nation-state into something that resembles what they take to be a Godly kingdom.”
Purists, by definition, are extremists, and it’s no accident that many in England dubbed those who wanted to reform the Church of England “Puritans,” which “was always a derisive term,” Donegan explains. “The Mayflower pilgrims were the most extreme kind of reformers. They called themselves Saints, but were also known as Separatists, for their desire to separate themselves completely from the established church. They were extremely hot Puritans who saw the Church of England as hopelessly corrupt and felt they had to leave it to get back to a pure and honest church.” Separatists viewed the church’s hierarchy—and its holidays, rituals, vestments, and prayers—as obstacles interposed between people and God. In truth, “they were on a journey towards purity,” historian Susan Hardman Moore of the University of Edinburgh says in the film. “That’s what they sought that’s what took them out of England.” The Separatists’ devotion to Scripture as the untrammelled source of faith resembles that of today’s religious fundamentalists, who venerate the literal word of God as found in the Bible.
Ironically, the most popular translation of that Bible, the King James version, came to be under a monarch who, in a sense, drove the Pilgrims from England. It was one thing to disagree with the church hierarchy, but the political problem was that the head of the Church of England was also the reigning king. And James I, who came to power in England in 1603, was a strong believer in unity when it came to his church he had no patience with religious rebels or heterodox churches. “Anyone who separates from the church is not just separating from the church, but they’re separating from royal authority,” explains Michael Braddick, a historian at the University of Sheffield, in the film. “And that’s potentially very dangerous.”
You could be fined 20 pounds—equivalent to $9,000 today—for not attending services at the official church. Those who persisted faced imprisonment. After the Act Against the Puritans of 1593, Queen Elizabeth added banishment. “I think, with James, the next step could have been death for these people,” historical novelist Sue Allan asserts in the film. “He was newly to the throne—not popular. He wasn’t going to have any dissenters. So I really think that these folk were risking everything.”
With the handwriting on the wall, in 1608, the future Pilgrims exiled themselves to Amsterdam, where the Dutch had greater tolerance for radical Protestants. Soon they decamped southward for Leiden, a textile center where they formed a little English-speaking immigrant community and worshiped God as they pleased, unmolested. But adults and children alike, who’d been farmers in England, now toiled from dawn to dusk, six or seven days a week, weaving cloth in the textile factories. Even with such hardships, the Pilgrims later regarded their Leiden years as a type of “glory days,” whose difficulties were nothing compared with the ordeals they faced in America.
By 1617, the Separatists were getting anxious to move again. “Their biggest concern after a decade in this foreign land was that their children were becoming Dutch,” Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of Mayflower, another source for The Pilgrims, explains in the film. “They were still very proud of their English heritage. They were also fearful that the Spanish were about to attack again.” Indeed, a conflict was building between Spain’s Catholic king and European Protestant powers, which would soon embroil the continent in the Thirty Years’ War. Radical Protestants viewed this as a battle between the forces of good (Protestantism) and evil (Roman Catholicism), little short of Armageddon. “Everything seemed to be on the edge of complete meltdown,” Philbrick says. “And so they decided it’s time to pull the ripcord once again. Even if it meant leaving everything they had known all their lives.”
Many in the Leiden group made the wrenching decision to leave all behind—even children, in some cases—and try for a new start across the ocean. They determined to settle near the mouth of the Hudson River, not far from present-day New York City. A London broker, Thomas Weston, approached them in early 1620 and said he’d arrange financing for a passage to the New World. His investors hoped the voyagers would harvest profitable resources like beaver pelts from the virgin territory. The commercial motives behind the Mayflower voyage receive fairly short shrift in most textbooks, but they may well be another aspect of the Pilgrims’ enterprise that dovetails with American society, given that the United States has become the most successful capitalist economy on earth.
The right time to sail would have been early spring, giving the voyagers time to sow crops and build shelters during warm weather. But, by June, Weston had not raised the money and announced that his backers were getting cold feet: They were insisting that dozens of non-Separatist outsiders go with them. This was, of course, appalling to the cultic Separatists, who divided their own from these others by the categories saints and strangers. Yet they had no resources, and no choice.
The Mayflower’s manifest made an unlikely expeditionary force. Fewer than fifty were adult men, many of mature years, while at least thirty were children and nearly twenty women, three of them pregnant. They did not sail from Plymouth harbor until the disastrously late date of September 6, assuring that they would arrive in America after the growing season and at the onset of winter. Two had died by the time the crew sighted Cape Cod—two hundered miles off course, with no reliable charts—on November 9.
Predictably, there had been friction between the saints and strangers. Nonetheless, before disembarking on November 11, 41 of the adult men signed a simple agreement, hardly more than a sentence long, to band together into a “civil body politic” with the power to enact laws. This document, known as the Mayflower Compact, became a touchstone, years later, for the Plymouth Colony’s Book of Laws, which affirmed that, in a time of crisis, a monarch’s authority could be set aside, but the consent of the governed could never be. A seminal document, indeed.
Right from the start, the death rate was awful. Mortality had been enormous at the Jamestown colony, where by 1620 nearly 8,000 people had arrived, although the settlement was struggling to keep its population above a thousand. Bradford’s history recalled the Pilgrims’ anticipation of “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” Ferrying in supplies from the ship meant wading through ice-cold water, at one point with sleet glazing their bodies with ice. The first winter, people died from dysentery, pneumonia, tuberculosis, scurvy, and exposure, at rates as high as two or three per day. “It pleased God to visit us then with death daily,” Bradford wrote.
The living were hardly able to bury the dead, let alone care for the sick. By spring, half of them had perished, and “by all rights, they all should have died, given how ill prepared they were,” says Philbrick. Yet they survived, and the Pilgrims’ story is as much one of survival as of origins. They were also inventive enough, as Donegan notes, to prop up sick men against trees outside the settlement, with muskets beside them, as decoys to look like sentinels to the Indians.
Early on, the settlers repelled an attack by Native American warriors—muskets against arrows, in a skirmish that presaged the continent’s future. Yet, in March, a lone Indian warrior named Samoset appeared and greeted the settlers, improbably, in English. Soon, the Pilgrims formed an alliance with the Wampanoags and their chief, Massasoit. Only a few years before, the tribe had lost 50 to 90 percent of its population to an epidemic borne by European coastal fisherman. Devastated by death, both groups were vulnerable to attack or domination by Indian tribes. They needed each other.
With spring, under the careful guidance of a Wampanoag friend, Tisquantum, the settlers planted corn, squash, and beans, with herring for fertilizer. They began building more houses, fishing for cod and bass, and trading with the Native Americans. By October they
had erected seven crude houses and four common buildings. And, as autumn came, the Pilgrims gathered to in a “special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors,” wrote one of their number, Edward Winslow. Bradford made no mention of it.
That was the first Thanksgiving. There is no record of an invitation to the Wampanoags, but Massasoit appeared at the feast with ninety men. They stayed for three days, and went out and bagged five deer to add venison to the menu. They played games together. This was the humble affair that, centuries later, President Abraham Lincoln made an official American holiday, perhaps the most beloved one of all.
“We love the story of Thanksgiving because it’s about alliance and abundance,” Donegan says in the film. “But part of the reason that they were grateful was that they had been in such misery that they had lost so many people—on both sides. So, in some way, that day of thanksgiving is also coming out of mourning it’s also coming out of grief. And this abundance that is a relief from that loss. But we don’t think about the loss—we think about the abundance.”
“It’s a very humble story of people who don’t have much, who suffer, and who have a communitarian ideal,” she adds. “It’s a very interesting narrative for a superpower nation. There is something sacred about humble beginnings. A country that has grown so rapidly, so violently, so prodigiously, needs a story of small, humble beginnings.”
400 Years After the ‘First Thanksgiving,’ the Tribe That Fed the Pilgrims Continues to Fight for Its Land Amid Another Epidemic
W hen Paula Peters was in second grade in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, listening to a teacher talk about Plymouth colony and the Mayflower, a student asked what happened to the Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims settle, the Wampanoag. The teacher said they were all dead.
“When she mentioned we’re all dead, that was devastating,” Peters, 61, recalled to TIME. “I raised my hand, and I said no that’s not true, I’m a Wampanoag, and I’m still here. I didn’t know enough then as a second grader that I could challenge her, but I think that I’ve challenged that second-grade teacher ever since. Part of my everyday being is telling people that we’re still here.”
Since then, Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag tribe member, has promoted education about the real history behind the Thanksgiving holiday. She and her son have helped to incorporate the Wampanoag perspective into events around the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing in Cape Cod this month. Five weeks after docking the Mayflower in 1620, the Pilgrims sailed away to find land better-suited to grow the crops they wanted, and ended up in Patuxet, the Wampanoag name for the area where they established Plymouth Colony. That contact with Europeans “brought plague and disease and pretty much almost wiped us out, so it’s not as much a cause for celebration,” says Kitty Hendricks-Miller, 62, Indian Education Coordinator at the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. For many Wampanoag, Thanksgiving has always been considered a day of mourning because of that epidemic and the centuries of American Indian removal policies that followed.
Many Wampanoag hoped that the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing would be a galvanizing event to remind people that the Wampanoag still exist, but many of the commemorative events have been cancelled, postponed or moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wampanoag to whom TIME talked all expressed a feeling of “eerie” déjà vu, marveling at how much hasn’t changed in 400 years in some respects. The tribe is in the midst of a fight for survival on two fronts: fighting to survive during a global pandemic and fighting to maintain control of their land.
Four hundred years ago, the Wampanoag were reeling from an epidemic that nearly wiped out the village of Patuxet. In 1616, before the Pilgrims’ arrival, a still-mysterious disease caused an epidemic that decimated an estimated 75% to 90% of the 69 villages that made up the Wampanoag Nation back then. Without modern knowledge of how diseases spread, Wampanoags attributed it to the supernatural spirits and gunpowder.
“The epidemic that decimated Wampanoag people just before arrival of Mayflower swept away a majority of their population,” says David J. Silverman, historian and author of This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. Initially, “a lot of native people associated firearms with epidemic disease because what they know is when Europeans show up, and fire their guns, shortly thereafter, people start dying of epidemic disease.”
Such disease outbreaks would be common in Wampanoag areas for the next 30 years or so. The Europeans viewed the decimation of the native population as akin to “God is sweeping away the pagans,” Silverman says.
“This is part of what created the vulnerability that allowed Mayflower passengers to have a place to be in Massachusetts,” says Hartman Deetz, 45, a Mashpee Wampanoag artist, educator and activist. In the early 17th century, some estimates say there were more than 40,000 Wampanoag people in New England. Now there are estimated to be 4,000-5,000. Today they make up two federally recognized tribes, Mashpee and Aquinnah&mdashthe two largest communities of Wampanoag&mdashas well as several other tribes recognized by Massachusetts.
“It’s somewhat ironic that on the 400th anniversary of acknowledging this point in history, we are forced to stay home and stay separate and feel that fear and uncertainty and some of the things that my ancestors were dealing with in a much more severe fashion,” adds Aquinnah Wampanoag Councilman Jonathan James-Perry, 44, who is featured in an online exhibit Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620 hosted by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.
The stories of disease ravaging the Wampanoag population, which so closely mirror that of the modern pandemic, are just one of many aspects that get left out of America’s Thanksgiving history.
In fact, all we know about the meal known as “the First Thanksgiving” in 1621 comes from a couple of paragraphs written respectively by prominent figures in Plymouth Colony, Edward Winslow and Governor William Bradford, suggesting to experts that it wasn’t a big deal at the time. Much of the meal’s meaning was added in the 19th century, when the nation was divided over slavery and the Civil War, as an opportunity to encourage Americans to come together under a federal holiday. A lot of the significance behind the meal has been created over the years, spawning many myths and misconceptions that Wampanoags and Native Americans in general have been debunking ever since.
“Being a Wampanoag person in this time of year, it’s always striking that we tell this story of the Pilgrims and the Indians, and yet the Wampanoag people are often times left out of this telling of this story. We are not given the decency of even having the name of us as a people mentioned,” says Deetz.
Linda Coombs, 71, an Aquinnah Wampanoag museum educator who also participated in Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620 and briefs teachers on Native American perspectives of U.S. history, believes the violence after that mythical Thanksgiving meal has to be faced head on. “When the colonists came over in the 17th century, they had to get rid of us in one form or fashion or another whether it as converting us, moving us, annihilating us, or shipping us out of the country into slavery, and I just wish people knew that because this history is not yet well known, but that’s what it took for America to be what it is today and for people to sit down to have their Thanksgiving dinner.”
In late March, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that there was not a basis for the tribe&rsquos 321 acres of tribal land in Mashpee and Taunton, Mass., to have reservation status because the tribe supposedly didn’t meet the definition of Indian. In June, a federal judge called Interior Department&rsquos decision &ldquoarbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and contrary to law,” and said the agency would have to re-analyze the question of whether the tribe is entitled to reservation land, while correcting all the errors that led to its original decision. But the matter is not resolved, and while the tribe awaits Interior&rsquos new decision, it is hoping for permanent protection through an act of Congress. It also has an ally in President-elect Joe Biden, whose tribal nations platform indicates he’s on the side of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe&mdashand Biden is reportedly vetting a Native American to be Interior Dept. secretary, which could help as well.
The Mashpee tribe has also had its own challenges internally, as its chairman was arrested on Nov. 13 and charged with accepting bribes in connection with plans to build a casino.
“We are once again 400 years later, in the midst of a pandemic and in the midst of a land grab and argument over jurisdiction and the ability of colonial law to recognize the rights of the people being colonized,” says Deetz.
The Wampanoag also have a family meal on the federal holiday, but it’s one of several Thanksgivings they celebrate throughout the year, to honor different harvests. Peters usually holds a “prayer fire” in her yard, gathering around a fire pit, offering tobacco (putting it in the fire) where prayers are said to remember ancestors and express gratitude generally. This year, because of COVID-19, her family’s gathering will be smaller than usual.
The 51st annual National Day of Mourning will still take place at Plymouth Rock. It usually draws more than 1,000 attendees on Thanksgiving Day, but this year organizers are encouraging people who don’t live nearby to watch the livestream to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the feeling of loss as participants remember fellow Native Americans who have died of the coronavirus, especially in the Navajo Nation.
Mahtowin Munro, 61, Lakota co-leader of United American Indians of New England, will begin fasting sundown the day before. She hopes that, just as the Black Lives Matter movement raised awareness of white supremacy, racism and attention to Black perspectives, the event is a reminder to listen to indigenous people. “When we’re there together, there is a really profound sense of solidarity and hope for the future that all of us being together and listening to one another that that can lead to a better future to everyone.”
These events are opportunities to talk about the ways people are “thriving,” not just surviving. Hendricks-Miller doesn’t like to use the word survival as much. “We’re still here,” she prefers to say, “considering all that we’ve been through. It’s kind of like a resounding mantra, we’re still here.”
The Real Story of The First Thanksgiving
For most people, enjoying turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin for Thanksgiving is as traditional and American as, well, apple pie. But how did the Pilgrims really celebrate on what we now regard as the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621? Is our celebration—and traditional menu—truly akin to that enjoyed by the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag Indian guests?
In a word, no. The only written record of the famous meal tells us that the harvest celebration lasted three days and included deer and wildfowl. Beyond that, culinary historians such as Kathleen Curtin at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts rely on period cookbooks and journals, Wampanoag oral histories, paintings from the time, and archaeological evidence.
"Most of today's classic Thanksgiving dishes weren't served in 1621," says Curtin. "These traditional holiday dishes became part of the menu after 1700. When you're trying to figure out just what was served, you need to do some educated guesswork. Ironically, it's far easier to discern what wasn't on the menu during those three days of feasting than what was!"
Sounds like somebody needs to start working on a recipe for TurBuckEn.
"All real historians need to be detectives," Curtin says, talking about her job as food historian for Plimoth Plantation. "Like a good mystery, new pieces sometime pop up that give you a fresh angle on an old story. I feel very passionate about the history of Thanksgiving because the real story is so much more interesting than the popular myth."
So, popular myths aside, what can be ruled out of the equation from the English transplants' table? Potatoes—white or sweet—would not have been featured on the 1621 table, and neither would sweet corn. Bread-based stuffing was also not made, though the Pilgrims may have used herbs or nuts to stuff birds.
Instead, the table was loaded with native fruits like plums, melons, grapes, and cranberries, plus local vegetables such as leeks, wild onions, beans, Jerusalem artichokes, and squash. (English crops such as turnips, cabbage, parsnips, onions, carrots, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme might have also been on hand.) And for the starring dishes, there were undoubtedly native birds and game as well as the Wampanoag gift of five deer. Fish and shellfish were also likely on the groaning board.
"Seethed" Mussels with Parsley and Vinegar
There is no concrete way to know if they had any roast turkey that day, but we do know there were plenty of wild turkeys in the region then, "and both the native Wampanoag Indians and English colonists ate them," writes Curtin in Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from the Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie. That doesn't explain why the big, ungainly bird has become the de facto traditional centerpiece around which the entire meal is built, but at least it gives us a feeling of authenticity to imagine that America's forefathers might have been gnawing on a crispy turkey leg, just like we do nearly four centuries later.
Learn the truth behind the first U.S. Thanksgiving dinner
Thanksgiving may be a federal holiday, celebrated by many Americans around the country, but for others, Thanksgiving has turned into a day of mourning. This duality has made Thanksgiving a largely controversial holiday within the country, but many may not know why we have Thanksgiving in the first place.
Here&rsquos a breakdown of what happened during the first Thanksgiving, why it&rsquos now a holiday, and why many have chosen not to celebrate Thanksgiving and instead spend the day in protest.
In truth, we don&rsquot know too many details about the first Thanksgiving. We don&rsquot have an exact date and, according to Voice of America , can only pin it down to the fall of 1621, shortly after the harvest and sometime between mid-September & November. In actuality, National Geographic suggests the first Thanksgiving could&rsquove actually been a routine event and wasn&rsquot a big deal at all.
It also isn&rsquot clear whether the Pilgrims served turkey. Kate Sheehan of the Plymouth Plantation said the Pilgrims possibly served various seafoods & vegetables, including pumpkin, beans, and other seasonal produce. Sheehan also said Native Americans were known to have plenty of dried fruit to add to various dishes. However, the reason for the celebration was largely because of their first successful harvest of corn or maize.
The only record we have of the first Thanksgiving is one eyewitness from Plymouth, Massachusetts: Edward Winslow. In his written passage, he described the foods they ate as well as the guests who attended the first Thanksgiving, which he said were ninety men and &ldquotheir greatest king Massasoit&rdquo. Winslow doesn&rsquot specify which tribe attended the feast, but we now know the Wampanoag tribe was at the Thanksgiving.
Tension at the first feast?
Historic preservation officer of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Ramona Peters told Voice of America the Wampanoag men approached the Pilgrims because they heard guns & canons in Plymouth. In Winslow&rsquos passage, he said, &ldquowe exercised our Arms&rdquo, but doesn&rsquot describe how or why they were doing bearing arms. Winslow further described killing &ldquomuch fowl&rdquo while the Wampanoag men &ldquokilled five deer&rdquo.
Winslow said the Pilgrims &ldquoentertained and feasted&rdquo the Wampanoag for three days, but Peters stated there was &ldquoa lot of tension&rdquo and the men &ldquocamped outside&rdquo since they &ldquowere not really sure what they were being told was actually true&rdquo. This uncertainty wasn&rsquot unfounded, as we have records showing the Pilgrims raiding Wampanoag graves only a year before the first Thanksgiving, according to National Geographic .
According to National Geographic , the Pilgrims were largely unprepared when they first landed in Plymouth, so they raided Native American storehouses and later required help from Native Americans to learn how to properly grow produce. The reason the Wampanoag people were willing to trade with the Pilgrims was more out of necessity, since the tribe was largely weakened by an epidemic, according to National Geographic .
Declared a holiday
Settlers didn&rsquot annually celebrate Thanksgiving until 1863. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday during the Civil War, as suggested by Sarah Josepha Hale, according to Voice of America . Hale, who was the editor of a women&rsquos magazine at the time, thought it would &ldquohelp unite the war-torn country&rdquo. By declaring the holiday, Lincoln reinforced the idealistic view of the celebration, according to Voice of America .
Before Lincoln&rsquos proclamation, there were plenty of Thanksgiving celebrations, mostly linked to major successes for the new country, but, if presidents didn&rsquot celebrate, some governors chose to observe the holiday. After the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant decided to make Thanksgiving a federal holiday through the Holidays Act while Franklin D. Roosevelt established Thanksgiving would be on the fourth Thursday of November.
National Day of Mourning
For Native Americans, however, the day of Thanksgiving is actually considered a &ldquoNational Day of Mourning&rdquo out of remembrance for the Native Americans who were killed & displaced by Pilgrims & European colonizers. Many Native American groups publicly condemn the holiday and spend the day in protest, including the Native Americans of New England group, who have organized an annual protest since 1970.
Many also condemn the holiday for the cultural appropriation frequently seen surrounding Thanksgiving. Cultural appropriation is most widely seen in schools who choose to celebrate Thanksgiving by making paper headdresses, which perpetuate stereotypes & inaccuracies about the holiday, according to Native Hope, a nonprofit which hopes &ldquoto dismantle barriers and inspire hope for Native voices unheard&rdquo.
Further, many Native Americans condemn the holiday because of the massacres that followed the first Thanksgiving and the atrocities committed by colonists that largely weakened Native Americans shortly after they arrived in North America. Still, some Native Americans have decided to embrace Thanksgiving, but focus more on celebrating the Wampanoag tribe & Native American spirituality.
How long did the first Thanksgiving last?
The "festival" lasted for three days, according to History.com.
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors," a man named Edward Winslow wrote.
Was turkey on the first Thanksgiving menu?
The Thanksgiving Turkey makes its way during the 81st annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 22, 2007 in New York City
Now a Thanksgiving staple, it is not known if turkey was on the menu in 1621.
"Today, however, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the bird - whether roasted, baked or deep-fried - on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation," according to History.com.
"Other traditional foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
"Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate."
Parades have also become a major Thanksgiving tradition, notably the Macy's march in New York City.
"They four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.
"And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
First Thanksgiving Meal - HISTORY
Yes, turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving dinner.
We all think that we know the history of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims came over from England and landed at Plymouth Rock, had a bad winter, Squanto taught them to plant crops, they had a harvest festival, and now we celebrate it every year, right? Well, it’s actually a little more complicated than that, and our modern holiday pulls from a mix of fact and fiction. Here’s (briefly) what we do know.
In September 1620, 102 religious separatists set off on a small ship (the Mayflower, of course) from Plymouth, England, and landed near Cape Cod 66 very uncomfortable days later. The next month they set up a colony farther south, near Massachusetts Bay, still far north of their intended destination of Manhattan Island. Many colonists stayed aboard the ship as the weather turned colder, and about half of them didn’t make it through the winter. In March, those that survived moved ashore, where several days later they were met by a Pawtuxet Native American who, several years earlier, had been kidnapped by a sea captain, sold into slavery, escaped to London, then found his way back home on an exploratory expedition, learning English along the way. His name? Tisquantum, or Squanto for short.
Squanto was truly the Pilgrims’ savior. He taught the malnourished settlers how to cultivate corn, catch fish, forage, extract maple sap, and avoid poisonous plants. He also brokered peace with the local Wampanoag tribe, and the resulting 50-year peace is one of the few examples of harmony between natives and settlers.
In the fall of 1621, the Plymouth colony’s 53 Englishmen decided to throw a party to celebrate their first successful corn harvest, and 90 native Wampanoag joined them. Governor William Bradford sent four men out to hunt birds, and the Wampanoag contributed five deer to the celebration, which lasted for three days. The exact date of the festival is unknown, but it most likely happened sometime between September 21 and November 9.
We know that the meal was very heavy on meat, but there was also a lot of seafood, plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and breads and porridges (and yes, turkey). It really was an abundance of riches, a meal worth remembering on a yearly basis.
As for Thanksgiving becoming a national holiday, that’s a whole other story. Americans celebrated a national day of Thanksgiving for many years before it was officially recognized, but it was a magazine editor named Sarah Joseph Hale who was responsible for leading the charge to get the holiday on the books, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November would officially be celebrated as Thanksgiving Day.
History Of Thanksgiving Dinner
The Thanksgiving dinner or the Thanksgiving feast symbolizes the tradition and custom of the families having the dinner together on the Thanksgiving Day. A traditional picture of Thanksgiving dinner may involve a loving family, a festive dining table, designer placemats on the table, glowing candles and the finest crockery generally used on special occasions like this one.
History Of Thanksgiving Dinner
At the first Thanksgiving celebrations the tough, resourceful, able to fly and hard to catch, turkeys were not the first choice of either the pilgrims or the Native Americans. This creature was so tenacious that Benjamin Franklin suggested it to be revered as our national symbol. (But the Bald Eagle ultimately won the honor by a feather.) It is believed that the turkey was the main course of the Thanksgiving feast at the first harvest festival therefore it has been adopted through time, as the model for Thanksgiving Dinner.
So the turkey is observed as a compulsory dish of the Thanksgiving dinner even today. No matter through which method it is cooked but the golden brown, with stuffing and gravy on the side turkey remains the main attraction of the Thanksgiving dinner and keeps whetting the appetites of all those present there.
The first Thanksgiving feast probably consisted of the dishes such as
Seethed [boiled] Lobster,
Fricase of Coney,
Pudding of Indian Corn Meal with dried Whortleberries,
Roasted Venison with Mustard Sauce,
Savory Pudding of Hominy
and Fruit and Holland Cheese.
Today a wide variety of dishes have been included in the Thanksgiving dinner along with the turkey, yet the traditional turkey is still the meat of choice. There is a large variety of food to choose from for a perfect Thanksgiving Dinner such as goose, duck, ham, some of the sea’s harvests, sweet potatoes, peas, rice dishes, greens, and even more exotic vegetables. All these items together make the celebrations of Thanksgiving Day even more tasteful.
The main idea behind finalizing a perfect Thanksgiving menu is to choose those dishes that represent the idea of giving thanks for a good fortune, a good harvesting season, and the sharing of the bounty of happiness with friends and family.